It’s a splendid review indeed. It really is. And if we ever discover who wrote it, we’ll give them their proper due. Really. Truly. We will.
When faced with a work of the stature of I, Robot, one is pretty much at a loss. This is the collection of Isaac Asimov’s stories about robots that originally appeared between 1940 and 1950, collected and provided with a frame: Dr. Susan Calvin, the chief robopsychologist at U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., is being interviewed; this collection is her reminiscences of her career and some of the more interesting personalities — human and otherwise — she has known.
One wonders how much influence, if any, Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. had on Asimov’s stories. Čapek’s robots (and by the way, he is credited with inventing the term, although he ascribed it to his brother) were somewhere between what we would call “clones” and “androids”: essentially organic, but assembled. They rebelled against their human masters and eradicated them.
Asimov undercut that possibility with his Three Laws of Robotics (and if you don’t have them memorized, shame). That did not stop him from examining the way unreasoning prejudice works itself out, a thread that runs through his survey of the development of robots, starting with great, clunky, steel-and-circuits mechanical men which (or who? It’s so hard to know), while intelligent and adaptable enough to act as nannies, could by no means be mistaken for human beings (“Robbie”). By the end of the book, we are faced with Stephen Byerley, the Earth’s first World Coordinator, who may very well be a robot himself (“Evidence” and “The Evitable Conflict”). What runs through all those stories is fear: Robbie is taken away from his charge because the neighbors are muttering, while Stephen Byerley is forced into some adroit misdirection to prove his own humanity.
Here, perhaps even more than in The Foundation Trilogy, one is struck by the humanity of these stories. They rely on a technological phenomenon, but they are about people — Gernsback’s formula is truly a thing of the past. More important, I think, is that these stories use the emerging humanity of the robots — another strong thread that runs throughout — to focus on the themes that have occupied storytellers since we learned to talk: good, evil, sacrifice, life, death, and love.
There are moments of humor, as well, and a quirky view of the sheer cussedness of the universe — what, for example, could make a robot drunk, and wouldn’t you know it would happen when your life depends on him staying sober (“Runaround”)? There’s even commentary on the conflicts built into the Three Laws — at least, as they show themselves when you have a robot with special talents (“Liar”). It is the humanity of Asimov’s robots and well as his people, I think, that pulls us into these stories and keeps us there.
The influence of Asimov’s robots is hard to state. There are any number of authors who borrowed his basic set-up, even to incorporating the Three Laws into their own work, and there are those who worked against it — Arthur C. Clarke’s Hal is one example, although Hal wasn’t, strictly speaking, a robot (given that Asimov’s Three Laws applied to all cybernetic constructs — computers — it’s not that much of a stretch). It’s an idea that worked its way into popular culture, although I don’t know whether I could validly credit Asimov with the genesis of such icons as R2D2 and C3PO, or even Robby the Robot, who first appeared in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet and went on to a career of his own, with appearances in films and TV series from The Addams Family to Dr. Who. It seems more that Asimov took the old idea of the automaton and brought it into the twenty-first century — a little ahead of time — giving it a distinctly human flavor and revitalizing it for a new era.
Asimov went on to develop this one further in Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn, pairing robot detective R. Daneel Olivaw with Elijah Baley, his human counterpart. These stories also, aside from being rather good detective adventures, offer penetrating examinations of prejudice, tolerance, and learning to accept others for what they are.
Maybe it’s a good idea that Bantam has chosen to reissue these stories now.